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First Nighter: Little Me Big and Christian Borle Even Bigger

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When Little Me opened in November 1962, its major pluses were Sid Caesar, the Carolyn Leigh-Cy Coleman score and the rarely-miss Neil Simon gags. Revived at City Center this weekend in an Encores! staged reading (but with only one cast member relying on a script), the lively musical can still pound its chest over the outstandingly tuneful score and the sterling-silver laugh lines.

It can also crow about--in place of Caesar's genius at lovable silliness--what could be called a breakout performance by Christian Borle. It probably shouldn't be called that, though, since Borle has already proved himself in Spamalot and for his Tony-snatching supporting role as Captain Hook in Peter and the Starcatcher.

Yet, here he is, easily demonstrating he can carry a show on his broad shoulders. As Caesar before him, he's called on to play six characters, ranging from the blazingly heroic Noble Eggelston to the clumsily near-sighted Fred Poitrine, from the self-absorbed French chanteur Val Du Val to the heel-clicking past-his-prime German film director Otto Schnitzler, from the decrepit and miserly Amos Pinchley to the destitute Prince Cherney.

Often switching roles within seconds (for one segment behind an upstage center panel) and quick-chanfing costumes (he didn't get his tie on for one of them at the performance I saw, but who cares?), Borle played the caricature aspects of all six men in a manner Caesar would have applauded. (Borle's Captain Hook surely foreshadowed that talent). He also showed off his art-of-timing mastery throughout. And he sings, too--with a powerful, malleable baritone.

Lest anyone forget, Little Me is an adaptation of the novel (of the same name) by Patrick Dennis, who certainly knew how to write about larger-than-life women. We're previously aware of this from Mame (his Auntie Mame). This time he tells the story of comely Belle Schlumpfert (Rachel York) and her rise from poverty to wealth, fame and social position. She achieves it by sleeping her way to some sort of top but puts a good, um, face on the process as she (Judy Kaye, the reminiscing older Belle) recounts the saga to mic-wielding author Dennis (David Garrison).

It was only when Simon, Leigh, Coleman and directors Cy Feuer and Bob Fosse (about his choreography more later) had decided their production would be a vehicle for Caesar that the focus was shifted to him and the over-the-top episodes where Belle encounters him.

The significant choice ranks as both a boon and a near bust in an enterprise that's as much a revue as a book musical. For the longish first act, there's plenty of gold in the circles where Belle and her paramours land. When the second act rolls around, strain sets in, and some of the sequences--particularly the Prince Cheney stretch--go on too long.

That they, along with the more buoyant sketches, are as amiable as they are is thanks not only to Borle, York and Kaye but to supporting players Tony Yazbeck as Belle's amorous reject George Musgrove, Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof as low-rent movie producers Bennie and Bernie Buchsbaum and Robert Creighton in a fistful of roles. All of them benefit immeasurably from John Rando's direction.

Then there are the songs, conducted with brassy brilliance by Rob Berman. Hoo-boy! One of the great contributions the Encores! series makes to its audience (an aging audience, it has to be observed) is as a reminder of the days when scores were scores, when they were stuffed with melodies and lyrics on the same consistently high level, when you didn't hear a clinker in a carload.

(FYI: A biography of Cy Coleman is on the way from theater writer Andy Probst. But what about a companion volume on Carolyn Leigh? She deserves it.)

Little Me is not only no exception to the chock-full-of-riches rule, it's exemplary. Leigh, who may not have the recognition due her, is one of the great practitioners of the trade, and Coleman collaborated with her beautifully. Together here, they top themselves with each succeeding song. It's foolish to pick one above the others, but the reprise of the waltz-tempo "Real Live Girl," delivered by wounded doughboys, is something to write home about.

Though the soldiers are wounded (several on crutches and canes, one in a wheelchair), they dance, too, and cleverly. Credit choreographer Joshua Bergasse with those terpsichorean notions. Credit him also with making something of his own from something that once belonged exclusively to Bob Fosse.

One of Fosse's first utterly Fosse-takes-Broadway numbers was "The Rich Kids' Rag" (a shout-out to the original cast's wonderful Barbara Sharma). While Bergasse does his thing with it, he also pays a bit of homage to Fosse. He nods to his predecessor in another jazz dance where he sends four men towards stage left with pelvises forward and arms curved behind them like opening parentheses. It's Fosse all the way.

When Yazbeck breaks into his moves after giving a fine reading to the slinky "I've Got Your Number" (a shout-out to the original cast's wonderful and now deceased Swen Swenson), he's asked to echo some Fosse signature hip-hitchings, et cetera, and does nicely by them. (Whether Fosse would have selected the same physical types for his routines as Bergasse does is an issue for another time.)

Here's a fact to make eyes pop and jaws drop: With everything it had going for it, Little Me ran only 257 performances. Surely, producers will look at this incarnation with a Broadway transfer in mind. Wouldn't it be peachy if that happened and the show got the reception it didn't get then when, apparently, standards were higher than they are now? Wouldn't it be a pleasure to think that--appropriating the title of another Coleman-Leigh standard--the best is yet to come?